Albuquerque Journal

Lab Workers' Records Available

By Heather Clark
The Associated Press

Friday, December 19, 2008

ALBUQUERQUE — The Department of Energy will recover the medical records of former Los Alamos National Laboratory workers that can help them prove whether they qualify for federal compensation for exposure to radiation and beryllium.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman and Sen.-elect Tom Udall, both New Mexico Democrats, welcomed the DOE's announcement Thursday of its decision to make the records available to former lab employees and their survivors.

The medical records are believed to span from Los Alamos lab's early days to the mid-1960s, according to a news release from the Los Alamos Site Office of the National Nuclear Security Administration.

They were stored at the Los Alamos Medical Center and were created before the facility was privatized in 1964.

The former employees need the records to determine whether they are eligible for a one-time payment of $150,000 from the federal Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act.

The compensation, which also includes medical benefits, was set up to help Cold War-era employees of the northern New Mexico nuclear weapons lab who were exposed to radiation, beryllium and other harmful substances. Beryllium is a strong but lightweight metal used in nuclear weapons. Airborne exposure can lead to chronic, incurable respiratory problems.

Bingaman says DOE's move will help former employees provide the information necessary to receive the compensation.

“Until now, many former workers seeking federal compensation have had a very hard time proving they were medically eligible,” he said.

Udall, who represents Los Alamos in the House until he takes up his seat in the Senate next month, said he first brought the issue to the attention of the DOE in March 2006.

“While I am pleased that DOE has entered into an agreement to retrieve the records, it's unfortunate that it's taken the agency nearly three years to do so,” Udall said.

The department recently announced it would provide $1 million to the Los Alamos Medical Center to help salvage the old medical records.

It was not clear how long employees will have to wait for the records.

The NNSA's Los Alamos Site Office said in a news release that the records must be moved and then sorted before any information is released to individuals, a process that will take “some time” as there are health, safety, and security precautions that need to be taken.

An NNSA spokesman was not immediately available Thursday to say when the records would be available for review.

The records may be covered with hantavirus-bearing mouse droppings, which would require them to be decontaminated. Other hazards include mold and radiation, the NNSA said.

In addition, some of the medical records may include classified information.

The Los Alamos Medical Center is responsible for the decontamination, sorting and return of the records to DOE or to their appropriate owners.

All records will be preserved, catalogued and stored, the NNSA said.